Hurricane Ian could leave behind a trail of environmental hazards


Gypsum piles at a disposal site in Piney Point, Florida, with 20-30 foot walls containing 400 million gallons of phosphorus and nitrogen in open ponds, look like a natural site for a potential disaster as Hurricane Ian battered large parts of Florida. In April 2021, the plant pumped polluted water into Tampa Bay, which scientists believe contributed to algal blooms.

But this year, the lining of the waste pit held up, the company says.

“We have taken into account the arrival of additional stormwater,” said Herbert Donica, a lawyer and accountant who several months ago was asked by a bankruptcy court to step in and oversee the cleanup and site closure.

The Fertilizer Plant has just over two dozen such sites in Florida, and while repairs to the Piney Point revetment appear to have held, there are still many unknowns about the wreckage that the Hurricane Ian left across the state.

Photos: Ian leaves a path of destruction

“We’re talking about an unprecedented level of solid waste and physical debris,” said Jennifer Hecker, executive director of the Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Partnership. “An incredible expanse of physical debris. There are thousands and thousands of boats and cars. Chemical debris, bacterial nutrients.

Governments and local agencies will have to round up the wreckage and expand the dumps to contain everything, including paved roads. For example, the causeway connecting Sanibel Island to the mainland was badly damaged.

“The road leading to the bridge has been heavily mined. So what you get are vast fields of asphalt that need to be cleared,” said Eric Draper, former director of the Florida Park Service. “Having to manage this is a real headache. It is very difficult to clean because the asphalt breaks into pieces.

Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said dealing with abandoned waste created a huge problem after Hurricane Katrina, and Ian would be no different. In the case of Katrina, New Orleans officials decided to burn much of the waste, in most cases in defiance of regulations on asbestos in buildings, gasoline in fuel tanks automobiles, plastic coatings and other contaminants.

Olson testified to Congress after Katrina that the waste was enough to cover more than 1,000 football fields 50 feet deep, dwarfing the debris from the World Trade Center attacks. It included 350,000 wrecked vehicles.

“There was just a huge amount of waste, just huge amounts of material that needed to be disposed of,” Olson said in a phone interview. “So they started burning in the open.” He added that many existing landfills were “almost full and had no room for materials”. The same could be true in Florida.

Hecker said the Peace River runs up central Florida, through a 1.3 million acre area known as “Bone Valley,” where the state’s phosphates are mined to make fertilizer. Only nine of the 27 mines are in operation, according to the state Environmental Protection Department, and little is known about conditions in the open ponds.

“All the way the hurricane came up where there are a lot of these phosphate ponds,” Hecker said. “We anticipate high levels of each type of contamination.”

Climate change is destroying septic tanks

Sewer laying another problem in big storms. Many local sewers are hooked up to electric pumps and, in the event of a breakdown, sewage can back up through manhole covers and street grates. Generators can provide backup, but most of these generators are needed to power homes or provide cellphone service, which one environmental official said was within an hour of her office.

Also, Hecker said, “septic tanks are failing in some areas and waste is gushing out of storm sewers.”

Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns River Guardian, said the flooding of septic tanks was “more difficult to track because many septic tanks are in low areas. It’s not a point source that you can monitor.

But Rinaman said there have been improvements thanks to major investments by the local Jacksonville utility to provide backup power to “lift stations” that provide pumping capacity. She said the utility was “at the forefront of resilience efforts”.

Alongside all of this, Hurricane Ian posed a relatively easy challenge as it passed through the Piney Point site. The storm produced more than 6.74 inches of rain and high winds, but the Department of Environmental Protection said in a memo Thursday evening that it had inspected the waste ponds and found that “there is no “There is no identified damage to the compartment systems or any other water management issues.” .”

Piney Point has received about 49.2 inches of rain since Jan. 1, the DEP said. The current capacity to store additional rainfall at the site is about 21 inches, the agency added.

Donica said that after taking over the struggling business from bankruptcy, her job was to shut it down or “get it to the side of the barn and knock it down.”

But he said fertilizer seepage from private homes would remain a problem because too many wealthy people were buying properties, building big houses and using lawn fertilizers that would seep into the water.

“These properties along the bay are very attractive,” he said. “People fall in love and buy building land and build a house. Then they take septic tank. Install very good landscaping. And start throwing phosphorus on the lawn.

But the population has skyrocketed and the septic tanks are leaking and killing the fish. “My stuff will be gone,” Donica said. “The other things will still be there.”

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